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Phantom Films In Conversation With Team Box Office India

BOI: In terms of production houses, you are the new kid on the block. How was Phantom Films conceived?

Vikas Bahl (VB): I had the urge to do something on my own. Madhu (Mantena) was already the most prolific independent producer and Anurag (Kashyap) was thinking about launching a directors’ company. I was talking to Anurag and Madhu separately on what we could do when I realised that all of us had something common. Then I realised that Madhu and Anurag had already known each other for a long time.

The three of us met and we asked Vikram (Vikramaditya Motwane) and a few other people what they thought of the idea. We thought it would be great to have both perspectives – a director’s perspective as well as that of a producer. At the time, Anurag and I were both producing and we agreed that if we pooled our ideas and perspectives, we could probably get a company going.

But it was also important for us to be on the same wavelength and to be in it for the long haul. In the end, it was the four of us who remained.

BOI: What does Phantom Films stand for and what kind of films do you want to make?

Vikramaditya Motwane (VM): All kinds of films… and we are already doing that. Starting with Lootera to something like Bombay Velvet to a Hasee Toh Phasee. We have a massive range; from a rom-com to a coming-of-age film to a period drama. It’s everything and more.

VB: The idea is not to restrict but to enable. If there is someone who wants to tell a story and if the story is interesting for that person to tell, then we would support that person. As such, there is no ‘Phantom way’ of working. Our primary objective is to identify talent and to find the best way to support that talent.

BOI: Are you open to making something like a Rowdy Rathore or a Bol Bachchan?

VB: We are very script-driven. If a Rowdy Rathore comes with an excellent script, we would be very open to doing it. The most important parameters are script and director. Of course, each of the four of us has different sensibilities and that’s a strength, whether it is making an Udaan or a Ghajini. But what drives us is the director and the content.

BOI: But Madhu is a very commercial filmmaker whereas you Vikas, Vikram and Anurag make cinema of a different kind.

Madhu Mantena (MM): That’s not true. The scripts that Vikram and Vikas green-light are more commercial than the ones that I okay. ‘Commercial’ is a very vague term. I don’t know whether Ghajini and Rowdy Rathore constitute commercial cinema. Of course, Ghajini was commercial because it had Aamir Khan. But if you made the same movie with a new person, I think people might have looked at the film very differently. A film like Kahaani was able to get the kind of numbers it did but I am not sure you could call Kahaani a ‘commercial’ film, nor No One Killed Jessica nor our next release Queen or Bombay Velvet. What exactly do you mean by ‘commercial’?

VB: I believe commercial refers to return on money invested. So, to me, Udaan was commercial when I was producing it or Vikram was directing it because it was made on that budget, or Dev D, for that matter. For me, if a film is made on a budget of Rs 90 crore and earns Rs 100 crore, it is non-commercial. It all depends on how you define commercial but we all want box office success. We all want our films to reach out to more people. But we would not compromise on content to achieve box office success. If that makes our journey longer, we are okay with that.

For instance, Anurag is in a place where his Gangs Of Wasseypur earned Rs 60 crore but he didn’t give up on his vision. That’s why, today, he has a Rs 60-crore audience base that will watch his films. He has worked hard to earn a loyal following. But he took the tough route and spent a decade to cultivate this audience.

So, the long and short of it is, we won’t compromise on content simply to clock huge numbers but we want content that will reach out to people as well.

BOI: So the idea is to make money and also be proud of the product.

VB: And to be consistent. Content is the only thing we can work on over the next 20, 25 years. Take, for instance, a scenario where we make a film that we don’t really believe in but that gets the box office numbers. The problem is, we wouldn’t know how to repeat those numbers because we were flying blind. Since we wouldn’t know why the project worked, we wouldn’t be able to repeat its success. But if we believe in something, we would know how to improve on it so that we get it right every single time. We want to last rather than make a quick buck.

BOI: The four of you are partners. How have you carved up you responsibilities?

VB: I don’t do anything.

VM: Neither do I. (Laughs)

Ranjan Singh (RS): Since the three of them are directors, they look after their own films. Vikas looks after the production of some other films too. He looks after the marketing, creative aspects, all the units. Vikram looks after scripts, picking up new scripts and developing of scripts. Madhu, of course, looks after our finances and budgets and all the legal issues these guys create. And Anurag, apart from producing his own films, is also looking out for talent.

VB: Our responsibilities play to our individual strengths but the important thing is that everyone takes everything forward.

MM: The beauty about Phantom is that everyone is very collaborative. The environment in our studio is such that each one helps the other when necessary. When someone is directing and needs some help, the others jump in; and if someone is writing dialogue, the others help out. This collaborative approach is very rare in our industry. But, at Phantom, we are like-minded and respect each other’s work. And no one is insecure or afraid.

VB: We are very scared but not afraid. (Laughs)

MM: It is but natural to be afraid.

VB: Yeah, I mean, Vikram probably showed Lootera to a hundred people but it was only to get the best feedback to ensure that we were able to put the best film out on that Friday, rather than putting it out on a Friday like a cowboy and later figuring out what went wrong with the film.

BOI: What is Phantom Films’ business model? You have different business partners for different films, like Balaji for Lootera, Viacom18 for Queen and Fox Star for Bombay Velvet.

MM: We are a production company and we are constantly working with studios, so we don’t have a distribution team. We also believe in working with like-minded people on our projects. So, for instance, Viacom18 has been very passionate about Queen, and that’s why they are our partner on this film.

As for Lootera, Ekta (Kapoor) approached us and said she wanted to be a part of anything we were doing. It was coincidental that someone had expressed their passion for working with us. Besides, all these people are producers as well. So we are looking for like-minded people for a particular story. So let’s say Viacom identified with a film like Queen but Ekta didn’t. So she decided to partner with Lootera instead. So you could say we develop projects and find partners for them.

BOI: Does that make Phantom Films largely a content provider?

MM: We are not a content provider. There are certain strengths we have and certain strengths that Viacom18 or Balaji or Fox Star has. For instance, we really like Ekta’s aggressive promotion and we liked the aggression she invested in the film. On the other hand, Viacom18 is very good at marketing and distribution, so we know they will take our film Queen and make it viable since it is also one of our most commercial films.

The economics of filmmaking is changing. So, Phantom will get the same response from every studio; it will not vary much. But we are also trying to push our stories. Sometimes, we try to get bigger-budget stories. Every filmmaker goes through that struggle, right? We always try to sell bigger-budget films. So sometimes, budgets come into play and sometimes, it’s content.

BOI: Do you plan to remain in the content creation and production space or do you also plan to foray into distribution?

MM: No. We are involved in content creation and marketing. Marketing is a big part of Phantom and one of our key strengths. We have Ranjan handling marketing and Vikas too, in association with a studio. We are proud to associate with other companies so seamlessly.

BOI: How do the four of you zero in on a script?

VB: All of us offer our inputs so everyone is involved in script selection. The idea is to give out the script to as many people in the company as possible so that we can get the right kind of feedback. Sometimes, one is surprised at where some of the best inputs come from.

MM: Also, all good production companies emphasise marketing. This is a key criterion before we take a film on the floors.

VB: Ranjan is our marketing head but he is also the associate producer on our films. That’s important because from the day we start putting a film together, the marketing guy needs to offer his inputs on the project.

BOI: When a director pitches a script to you, what criteria does he have to meet for you to green-light a film?

MM: We are an ‘open house’ and anyone can walk in with a script. The first time I really spent time with Vikram was at MAMI. The culture of our company is that we are always looking for new filmmakers. It does not mean we have to produce their films. Both Anurag and Vikram like mentoring so much that they sometimes spend days just talking to people who come to them with ideas. Vikas and I are more commercial. We prefer to make money out of ideas. We don’t give away our gyaan for free! (Laughs)

VM: A script takes time to evolve. So sometimes, we receive phone calls and emails or people approach us in person. That’s how it works. The four of us meet to discuss an idea and if two out of four like the film, we go ahead and make it.

MM: With some films, you take a leap of faith.

VM: The director’s vision is also very important. We are directors ourselves, so once you know the director’s vision, you trust their script and trust their stories and you back them all the way.

BOI: Do you make any projections on how many films you would like to make every year?

VB: We don’t have a plan like that but we know that we have outdone ourselves this year. So we are just chilling now. (Laughs)

MM: The thing is, we are greedy for good cinema. So it is very difficult to let a good script go although sometimes we have to. If you take a look at our slate, we are producing a ` 2-crore film and also a ` 90-crore film – and we put in an equal amount of time in each project.

VB: But we don’t have a topline. The day we have a topline target for our business is the day the whole thing starts stumbling because then your focus shifts to numbers.

MM: The philosophy is to make good films.

BOI: Is Phantom Films open to acquiring films?

VB: We have been greedy enough to pick up a film too.

MM: Acquisition means adding value to a story. So if we see a story and, as a studio, add value to it, we will do it if it’s worth bringing our brand on board. The brand is built by the films you do. It’s not the reverse – no one goes to watch a Phantom film’.

VB: But we basically want people to come and watch a Phantom film. So if you watch a Phantom film, it has to be a good film.

MM: I guess what I am trying to say is that the Phantom brand gives a film focus. Almost every day, I get a call saying, ‘Hamare pas paisa hai aapka brand milega kya?’ And I don’t know how to react. The philosophy is not to only build a good banner but also good films.

VB: Recently, we came across a film we liked but it needs a lot of work on the editing table. It also needs a lot of work on the way it begins and where it can be taken marketing-wise and creatively, what it can be called and so on. We loved the film but it has a long journey to travel. We think we can add a lot of value to it and take it places. So we have jumped on board. Vikram is taking it ahead; Ranjan is taking care of the marketing; and we are making the posters and the trailer. We have no clue to how we are commercially involved in that but we loved the director and the story.

VM: Yeah, and we know that we have the contacts in the industry to ask for favours. So we can call upon this music person to make the music or this guy to cut the trailer and design the poster.

MM: Many of the smaller films we help out with need top grade technicians, which the filmmaker may not have access to. So we sometimes help out as a favour as someone needs to bring attention to focus to the film.

BOI: Since all four of you have extremely strong backgrounds, isn’t there the potential for you to clash on ideas and opinions?

VB: At the very basic level, we know we have only the film’s best interests at heart. We have only one agenda.

MM: There is no conflict as we are only fighting for films and how we can make them. When raising a child, both parents may have different opinions on many issues but they both want the best for the child. I think it’s healthy for businesses like films to be exposed to four different points of view.

BOI: What kind of leeway or freedom do you have? For instance, can Vikram do a film outside Phantom Films or would it have to be co-produced by your company?

MM: It depends on the script. If you have an extraordinary script and Phantom’s other partners don’t say want to be a part of it, then…

VM: (Cuts in) Ideally, who wouldn’t want to do a film with Phantom? But, sure, if Phantom can’t make the film then…

MM: (Cuts in)Also, I can’t see any reason why someone wouldn’t want Phantom involved as it is Vikram’s company.

VM: We tell people we can make their film at a cost that is 20-25 per cent less than they can, so it would benefit the studio to come to us. Also, we have the right mindset, that indie mindset. So who wouldn’t want to make a film with Phantom?

MM: It’s all about the branding and the money. And the kind of people we work with want to make good films.

VB: Each of us is equally invested in Phantom. So if I were to make a film outside Phantom, I would feel handicapped by not having Vikram, Anurag, Madhu and Ranjan by my side.

MM: Even if a big star wants us to do a film, why would he say, ‘Phantom ko nikaal do…’

BOI: For your co-productions, hasn’t any corporate studio approached you? Say, they have a script and want you on board.

VB: Many people have approached Vikram with scripts. In fact, Balaji came to Vikram as we had worked together on Lootera. They presented two scripts to Vikram. Many people come to Anurag too with scripts, So there is a steady stream of scripts. Since we are so new, everyone is trying to figure out our mode of operation, how we work, what are the questions we ask? Can we approach Vikram with a script?

BOI: Why don’t you spell that out through Box Office India?

MM: The whole point of Phantom is to get material coming in to the company. A good script can come from anywhere and is always welcome. It is a challenge for filmmakers, to find more and more relevant scripts. Scripts can come via email, SMS and directly to the studio.

BOI: How do you handle this flood of good scripts?

MM: We are restricted by mindset; we are not restricted by infrastructure. We are as well-equipped as anyone else is. Each one of us has a different background and we are a production house. We have a strong marketing team.

BOI: Will you be increasing your manpower to be able to handle multiple projects simultaneously?

VB: Since we don’t want quality to suffer, we are not focused on quantitative growth. We will first build on quality. And we will grow because there is a lot of good content to put out there, not because we want to churn out more projects.

MM: We collaborate with writers, line producers and others who want to do just one film and make an exit… that’s just how the business is.

VB: Launching Phantom opened up a whole new world to the four of us. The kind of people we are getting to work with is fantastic. The way Ekta looks at a film; the way she markets a film; the way Karan looks at his films; the way he does his music sittings; the way he looks at pitching a film... It was the beginning of a huge learning process.

BOI: When you work with big names, they feel it is their prerogative to interfere with everything, right?

MM: If you can collaborate, you don’t call it interference. First, you have to be open to collaborating. If someone offers an opinion, he is only doing that for the good of the film… from actors to cameramen… that’s what happens on the sets, right? Being an open house, being collaborative is part of the job.

Collaborating is the only way you can stay on top in a business that wipes out people every five years. Think about it… in the last 40 years, how many producers have survived? It’s a very competitive business. If you’re not constantly collaborating and learning, you won’t last. Interference is good as long as they know what they’re talking about. Put your best foot forward and let the best argument win, let the best script win, let the best talent win.

VB: When we made Dev D and Udaan, we knew that others would start making films like these in four to five years. The thing is to find those people and help us make better films. Because there will be better people, and there will be more talented people and we have to run to them.

BOI: Where do you see Phantom Films in the next few years?

MM: Making bigger and better films. Bigger in terms of audience and reach, not scale.

VB: (Laughs) A bigger courtyard for more dogs! When we started Phantom, we got two dogs. Then we thought, ab 15 saal kaise bhi chalana hi hain company ko. That was the first pressure point we had. We are not aiming for a sharp growth curve. The idea was to liberate ourselves from the very things we used to do. The idea was to do what we love to do and spend the day doing what we like to do. When I worked in the corporate world, I spent 60 per cent of my time doing things I didn’t like, whether it was presentations or financial meetings or reporting to foreigners.

MM: (Cuts in) Now they don’t do it, I do all of this.

VB: He likes doing it.

BOI: Creative satisfaction is one thing, what about box office collections?

MM: The box office is synonymous with the audience. Every filmmaker wants the maximum number of people to watch his or her film. They want their story to be told. Even if we claim the box office is not important, the fact remains that every artiste in the world wants their work to be seen. But it’s not about the numbers, per se.

VB: Unfortunately, the term ‘box office’ has acquired a negative connotation. It’s actually all about measurement via footfalls. If your sample size increases, it means you’ve made a good film and vice versa. Your sample may comprise ten people but if those ten people don’t go out and tell others they should watch that film, then the only one who knows what he has made is the filmmaker himself. Filmmaking is a commercial art; it’s a collaborative art and everyone concerned have to get returns on their investment in the project.

And I don’t mean returns in the form of currency. This business is about giving back in various ways. Actors and cameramen should get ahead in their careers, directors should be able to get bigger budgets for their next films. Anurag Kashyap had Bombay Velvet with him for nine years. He told me he was only practicing to make that film some day because when you have a story like this one, you need credibility to find investors. Your past films set the tone for budgets of subsequent films.

VB: Every business is all about efficiency. It’s about making films in the most cost-effective way and getting more and more business. We obviously want to make a Rs 50-crore film but the tighter the budget, the bigger the profit margin.

MM: Let me give you an example. Let’s say our first film Lootera had a budget of Rs 20 crore. We had a lot of accidents while shooting… we lost sets, the lead actor had an accident, the film was postponed by eight months. But our final budget was still Rs 20 crore. Shobha Kapoor is very difficult to please as she is a very practical woman. But our director still delivered the film on the same budget and met all his deadlines. That was because Vikram made it happen. I am very proud of that.

BOI: Ranjan, you head marketing but you’re working with diverse studios like Fox Star, Viacom18 and Balaji Motion Pictures. Is it difficult to partner with companies that have so many different cultures?

RS: All of them have the same objective. Each company produces a different type of content with Phantom, so marketing strategies are different with each one of them.

BOI: Finally, why ‘Phantom’ Films?

VB: Remember those candy cigarettes we used to eat? Attitude bhi hai aur harmful bhi nahi hain.

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